A tender story about the people left behind when the world went digital
A miserabilist minor masterpiece, writer/director Kristian A Söderström’s feature debut is not only about a couple of people stuck spiritually and culturally in the 1980s, but looks, feels and has the mildewed ambience of those times, from the wobbly direction down to non-sequitur acting.
Using a trash aesthetic is a refuge of the talentless, quite often, but Söderström’s story is so touching and heartfelt (as well as acutely observed and often darkly funny) that you don’t just give him the benefit of the doubt, you start checking to see what else he’s done (a string of shorts, which I’d like to see).
But, to the meat of this very slender story, which hangs on hangdog Ennio – Stefan Sauk – a Swedish man around 60, in hoodie and black t-shirt, who used to own the biggest VHS store in town but now services only a handful of diehards, from a lockup where he obsessively catalogues his old plastic boxes, hunts down rarities and checks returned tapes – very prone to snarling, those old VHS’s.
The films are usually either porn, giallo or arthouse, or variations thereon, genres once sustained by seedy cinemas worldwide whose patrons couldn’t get horror, foreign language or sex anywhere elese. Which explains why the phrase, “You wanna see me fuck the gearstick” drifts from a flickering TV screen at one point.
Two things break the routine of the obsessively honest Ennio (named after the spaghetti western composer) – a phone call from someone known only as Faceless, a female collector who has heard that Ennio has a copy of an arcane tape and offers him €10,000 for it. And his friends-with-boozy benefits relationship with the gloriously sad Simone (Lena Nilsson), a refugee from simpler times whose life in an office surrounded by young, ambitious go-getters propels her even faster to the bottle.
Faceless remains, to all intents and purposes, an offscreen driver of a plot about Ennio losing the tape and then hunting around town for it, tapping one of his VHS loser desperadoes after another in a series of vignettes of life lived all the wrong way, according to current standards.
Which leaves the stage clear for the main event, which is the relationship of Ennio and Simone. It’s played brilliantly carefully by Sauk and Nilsson, who know that a certain ambiguity is the key to these people. If we take them at their own estimation, they’re brave refuseniks in a world gone bad. Meanwhile, the camera tells another story, of a pair of drunks locked in a mutually reinforcing relationship of self-deception.
Theirs is a story of drink, loneliness, bad sex, mediocrity, unhappiness, faded glory, dad-dancing and just sheer out-and-out tackiness – there’s a cameo at one point by someone who is meant to be 1980s topless model Samantha Fox, just to underline the point – and if Söderström didn’t like Ennio and Simone it would be just another depressing, snarky gawk at losers. But it’s much more than that.
In every review of any cultural artefact from Sweden it’s traditional at some point to shoehorn in Abba, Bergman and Ikea. This is that point, and I can hand on heart say that Videoman has legitimate claim on the divorcee plaintiveness of Abba and Bergman’s takes on faith and existential crisis. Flatpack furniture isn’t so obvious. However, at one point the couple – drunk out of their skulls – do rail against the wipe-clean modern world, making self-validating claims about their own passion and uniqueness compared to the screen-fixated, goal-oriented drones who now inhabit a world that used to be theirs.
It is, perhaps, the film’s big message but you could honestly skip it and you’d still be mightily entertained by this warm, touching portrait of a man in late middle aged living a life of pizza, beer and hard times, his growing thing with a woman who is at one point so hung-over that she throws up on the work photocopier, and a McGuffin mystery VHS that could change his life or get him killed.
Bleakest and funniest of all is what Ennio plans to do with the money for the valuable tape, if he gets it – open another video shop, of course.
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© Steve Morrissey 2019